The Arty Semite

Newly Delighted by 'The Book of Delights'

By Benjamin Ivry

  • Print
  • Share Share

A doctor and the Angel of Death both kill, but the former charges a fee.

Never send for a doctor, for one cannot expect a miracle to happen.

A Jewish doctor wrote the above ironic observations, a remarkable 12th century Barcelona-born author named Joseph Zabara. The sole surviving work by Zabara is “Sefer Sha’ashu’im” (“The Book of Delights”) a collection of biting tales, dialogues and observations in Hebrew. Available in an English translation by Moses Hadas originally published in 1932 by Columbia University Press and reprinted decades ago, “The Book of Delights” is long overdue for reprint. So it is good to have a new translation, the first ever into French, which appeared in September from Les éditions Les Belles Lettres.

Courtesy of Nathan Weinstock
M. le Traducteur Nathan Weinstock made the first translation of Joseph Zabara’s ‘The Book of Delights’ into French.

Its translator is Nathan Weinstock, a Belgian lawyer and left-wing historian, who would presumably have little sympathy for Zabara’s apparent misogyny. This trend in the Catalonian medic’s writing is striking in such tales as “The Widow’s Vow,” in which a woman professes endless love for her late husband but eagerly marries another man, and “Woman’s Contentions,” in which a criminal on death row is offered a royal pardon if he marries a wicked woman, but opts for death rather than suffering “many deaths each day.”

One approach to the flaw in Zabara’s delight was proposed by Israel Abrahams who was reader in Talmudics at Cambridge University at the turn of the century and author of an essay on Zabara’s work published in 1912. Abrahams relativizes Zabara’s misogyny by quoting the Austrian rabbi Moritz Güdemann to the effect that circa 1200, Jewish authors who wrote bitterly about women were also “loud in praise of their own wives — the women whom alone they knew intimately.”

Zabara was skilled in Hebrew — his everyday language was Catalan — which he studied in Narbonne, France with Rabbi Joseph Kimchi, who had fled his native Southern Spain after Moorish persecution. Kimchi in turn approvingly quoted from “The Book of Delights.” Abrahams notes that Zabara was among the first to write “extended narratives in Hebrew rhymed prose with interspersed snatches of verse, the form invented by Arabian poets, and much esteemed as the medium for story-telling and for writing social satire.” While Zabara’s work may not shine as brightly as Rabbi Judah Ben Solomon Al-Harizi’s major poem “Tachkemoni” (“The Wise One”), let alone such contemporaries as Yehuda Halevi, Moses Ibn Ezra or Solomon Ibn Gabirol he is nonetheless noteworthy. “Zabara has less art than [Al-Harizi], and far less technical skill,” writes Abrahams, “yet in him all the qualities are in the bud that [Al-Harizi’s] poems present in the fullblown flower.” Plus he is fun to read.


Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: Moses Hadas, Israel Abrahams, Joseph Zabara

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.




Find us on Facebook!
  • Can you relate?
  • The Forverts' "Bintel Brief" advice column ran for more than 65 years. Now it's getting a second life — as a cartoon.
  • Half of this Hillel's members believe Jesus was the Messiah.
  • Vinyl isn't just for hipsters and hippies. Israeli photographer Eilan Paz documents the most astonishing record collections from around the world:http://jd.fo/g3IyM
  • Could Spider-Man be Jewish? Andrew Garfield thinks so.
  • Most tasteless video ever? A new video shows Jesus Christ dying at Auschwitz.
  • "It’s the smell that hits me first — musty, almost sweet, emanating from the green felt that cradles each piece of silver cutlery in its own place." Only one week left to submit! Tell us the story of your family's Jewish heirloom.
  • Mazel tov to Chelsea Clinton and Marc Mezvinsky!
  • If it's true, it's pretty terrifying news.
  • “My mom went to cook at the White House and all I got was this tiny piece of leftover raspberry ganache."
  • Planning on catching "Fading Gigolo" this weekend? Read our review.
  • A new initiative will spend $300 million a year towards strengthening Israel's relationship with the Diaspora. http://jd.fo/q3Iaj Is this money spent wisely?
  • Lusia Horowitz left pre-state Israel to fight fascism in Spain — and wound up being captured by the Nazis and sent to die at Auschwitz. Share her remarkable story — told in her letters.
  • Vered Guttman doesn't usually get nervous about cooking for 20 people, even for Passover. But last night was a bit different. She was cooking for the Obamas at the White House Seder.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.